Thorn – Medieval Girl Power in the Netherlands

They call it ‘the little white town‘, or ‘the white village‘, or ‘het witte stadje‘ in Dutch, and indeed Thorn is not your average Dutch town. With the legacy of being an Imperial Abbey ruled by women and the turbulent aftermath of the French invasion in the 18th century, Thorn is a very interesting place to visit with lots to see and do.

Thorn is located at the border with Belgium in the Dutch Province of Limburg, and to be more precise in Middle-Limburg. The area between Thorn and Roermond is known as the Maasplassen – interconnected excavation lakes along the Meuse River, which today are part of a gigantic water recreational area (15 km2) .

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How to get to Thorn (Netherlands)?

Thorn is the perfect day-trip destination from Maastricht (45 km), Eindhoven (45 km), Roermond (19 km) and even Dusseldorf (80 km) or Aachen (65 km) in Germany. However, it’s a bit too far from Amsterdam (170 km) to visit it in one day, although it depends whether you want to spend almost 2 hours in the car each way. You can also include it on your itinerary, if you are travelling from the Netherlands to Luxembourg or from Belgium to Germany, or from France to Germany.

Read more: If you are staying in Limburg for a longer period, this post will help you plan your trip – discover which are the best places to visit on a day trip from Maastricht.

Thorn in the Netherlands - the little white town or the little white village, a cobblestone street lined up white houses and some green trees

By public transport

  • From Maastricht – bus line 73 to Weert via Thorn
  • From Roermond – bus line 73 to Weert via Thorn (it’s the same as the one from Maastricht)
  • From Eindhoven – take the train to Weert and then bus line 73 to Roermond and Maastricht via Thorn)

No matter where you are in the Netherlands, you can use the following website to find the best public transport connection to Thorn, just click on the button below:

By car

The historical centre of Thorn is car-free, so if you are visiting Thorn by car, you need to park outside of the town. This is no big deal, as the place is small, and you will be in no time in the centre.

Things to do in Thorn

You’ll be surprised how much Thorn has to offer despite its petite size. Let’s start our tour of ‘the little white town’.

2 whitewashed houses , one of them is a museum and the other one has green wooden shutters, the local museum in Thorn
Het Land van Thorn Museum

1. Visit the municipal museum ‘Het land van Thorn’

My advice is to start your trip with a visit to the local museum Het land van Thorn (The land of Thorn). The museum will take you on a journey through the centuries and you will learn all secrets of the little white town. How from a little church it turned into an imperial abbey, run by powerful women. You will find out who the he- and she-goats are and why they are in constant rivalry. And of course you will get an answer to the burning question why the houses in Thorn are white.

There’s a lovely handcrafted panorama of the town in 1:100 scale which rotates slowly. If you are a history geek, you will enjoy the interactive storytelling done by the daughter of the founders of the Abbey (Benedicta) and the famous Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers, who renovated the Abbey Church.

Fun fact: Pierre Cuypers is the architect behind the mesmerizing Rijksmuseum and the Central Train Station in Amsterdam, and the Castle De Haar near Utrecht.

The museum doesn’t generate profit and is run by volunteers. You can sense how much love goes into putting the exhibitions together and telling the story of their beloved little white town.

Practicalities:

  • Opening times: 1 April till 31 October, Tuesday – Sunday, from 10:00 to 17:00; 1 November till 31 March, Tuesday – Sunday, from 11:00 to 16:00
  • Entrance fee: adults – 3,50 EUR, kids (13–18 yoa) – 2 EUR

2. Admire the Abbey Church (Sint-Michaëlskerk)

The Abbey Church has a very interesting history. Built in 6 stages over a span of 450 years, the church was finally finished at the end of the 15th century. After the French invasion at the end of the 18th century almost all major buildings in the Imperial Abbey were demolished, including the palace of the abbess. The only building that remained, was the Abbey Church. In the following century the Abbey Church became a parish church. The little St Michael’s parish church was demolished and the Abbey Church continued its journey as the new St Michael’s Church (Sint-Michaëlskerk).

an interior of a church with arches, columns and benches for sitting and the altar at the focal point, the Abbey Church in Thorn
The Abbey Church

In 1860 began the restoration of the church. It was only then when the iconic church tower was built. The famous Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers wanted to return the church to its Gothic glory and indeed the outside today features beautiful elements in Gothic Revival. However, the Baroque interior of the church remained untouched. This is one of the aspects that makes the church so interesting.

Practicalities:

  • Opening times: 30 March till 31 October, Monday – Sunday, from 10:00 to 17:00; 1 November till 29 March, Saturday – Sunday, from 11:00 to 16:00
  • Entrance fee: adults – 3,50 EUR, kids (13–18 yoa) – 1,50 EUR

3. See the mummy in the crypt

Thorn is all about unexpected discoveries, legends and stories. In the crypt of the church, there lies a mummy, desiccated in a natural way, which was discovered in the 19th century. It was long believed that this was the the 18th-century canon Quantjel. However, in 2007 the mummy underwent a CT-scan, which proved all presumptions wrong. It turned out that the mummy has lived in the 17th century and had a good life.

In the crypt there’s also a lead casket which is believed to contain the remains of Hilsondis, the wife of the bishop of Utrecht Ansfried who founded the abbey. Well, this might be true, as the carbon-14 dating of the remains showed that they belonged to a woman who had lived around 700. Although the centuries don’t match, this could have been Hilsondis, as if you eat predominantly fish, you can get an earlier carbon-14 dating.

a Dutch pancake with salmon and spinach
Dutch pancake with salmon and spinach

4. Treat yourself to a Dutch pancake

Have you already tried Dutch-style pancakes? The perfect marriage between a pizza and a crepe… Dutch pancakes come both with sweet and savoury toppings and are eaten mostly for lunch or dinner. The best place to try Dutch pancakes in Thorn is at the Pannekoekenbakker.

Practicalities:

  • Address: Bogenstraat 2, 6017 AV Thorn
a small white chapel surrounded by green linden trees, Thorn
The Chapel under the Linden Trees

5. Search for the Chapel under the Linden Trees

Hidden under the linden trees, just a short walk from the historical centre of Thorn, is a small chapel, dedicated to Our Lady of Loreto. The Chapel under the Linden Trees (De Kapel Onder de Linden) was built in 1673 as a copy of the house where Virgin Mary has received the Annunciation in Nazareth, following the fashion of the first Casa Santa built in Loreto, Italy. The ‘holy house’ was supposedly brought by angels to Loreto at the end of the 13th century.

It’s a lovely chapel with a beautifully stuccoed ceiling located in extremely peaceful surroundings. The chapel can be visited free of charge.

Practicalities:

  • Address: Heerbaan-Kapel 4, 6017 RB Thorn
  • Distance from the Abbey Church: 1.3 km (17 minutes walking)
a water pump on a small square with white hoses behind, Wijngoed Thorn
Wijngoed Thorn

6. Taste the local wine

The Netherlands is not among the world’s most popular wine destinations, but still the wine produced in Limburg is something you have to try. Along the Meuse, starting from Thorn, all the way down to Lanaken in Belgium, there’s a few wineries, both in the Netherlands and in Belgium. Because of its distinguished quality, the wine produced in this area got the statute of Maasvallei Limburg PDO/AOP (Protected Designation of Origin/Appellation d’Origine Protégée).

You can try Thorn’s own wine, produced by Wijngoed Thorn at their shop in the historical centre of the town.

Practicalities:

  • Address: Bogenstraat 12 A, 6017 AV Thorn
  • Opening times: 1 April till 30 September, Thursday – Sunday, from 14:00 to 16:00; 1 October till 31 March, Thursday – Saturday, from 14:00 to 16:00
a cobblestone street going up a hill and at the end a church with high belfry, a lot of trees and blue sky
Kloosterbeg with the Abbey Church

7. Discover all hidden corners

The best way to discover the historical centre of the little white town is to get lost. Check out the town’s square Wijngaard, which once was the abbey’s garden with a vineyard, hence the name. Walk along the Itterbeek Under the Trees (yes, that’s the name of the street Onder de bomen/Under the Trees) all the way to the Monument of Music. Climb Kloosterberg (Convent Hill) Street all the way up to the Abbey Church and try to locate the only remaining buildings from the Imperial Abbey: the beguine court (the Pottery), the abbey’s kitchen (Hofferkeukens) and the service buildings (Neerhof).

In the courtyard of the former abbey palace, there’s a statue of Ansfried, the founder of Thorn.

a small stream running along a wall with windows and on the other side - green trees, Thorn
Walking Under the Trees along Itterbeek

8. Take a boat trip on the Meuse

Thorn is a stop on a few cruise lines along the Meuse River. So, you can hop on and off and visit other lovely places like Wessem and Stevensweert. The little harbour is just a few minute’s walk from the historical centre.

Here is a list of the companies that organize boat tours on the Meuse:

  • De Paep – stops in Stevensweert, Thorn and De Spaanjerd (Kinrooi, Belgium)
  • Rederij Cascade – stops in Wessem and Maasbracht

On the way to the departure point of the cruises you’ll pass by another landmark in Thorn – the country estate De Grote Hegge (Kasteelhoeve de Grote Hegge). The chateau dates back to 1451. Today, it functions as a venue for weddings, parties and conferences.

Practicalities:

  • Departure point: Grootheggerlaan, Thorn
  • Distance from the Abbey Church: 750 m (10 minutes walking)
a lovely street lined up on one side with cafes and restaurants with their tables and chairs on the sidewalk, the little white village of Thorn in Limburg, the Netherlands
Restaurants and cafes in Thorn

9. Indulge in great food

There are some really good restaurants and cafes in Thorn:

  • Brasserie De Wijngaard (Wijngaard 10) – lunch and dinner; lovely outside sitting area
  • De Pannekoekenbakker (Bogenstraat 2) – lunch and dinner; Dutch-style pancakes; perfect if you are with kids
  • Grand-Café ’t Stift (Hofstraat 2) – lunch and dinner; a good selection of local beers
  • Drie Cronen (Hofstraat 1) – lunch and dinner; great food using local and seasonal produce
  • Hofferkeukens (Hofstraat 12) – lunch and dinner; gourmet dishes

Where to stay in Thorn

There are a few hotels and lovely B&B in the historical centre of the little white town where you spend the night, some of them are pretty special. Het KapelhuisI, for example, is located near the Chapel Under the Linden Trees.

  • B&B Het Molenaarshuischeck availability and prices
  • Hotel Abdijhof – you can stay either in the hotel, located in the former kitchen of the Abbey (Hofferkeukens) or in one of the so-called pottery houses in the beguinage.

Hotel Crasborn

Het Kapelhuis

Fletcher Hotel La Ville Blanche

Why is Thorn so special?

The story of Thorn is absolutely fascinating. We have this image of the Middle Ages where women had no rights and where political and economic models wouldn’t be that advanced. Thorn, however was different: powerful women, economic prosperity, tax haven.

a white arch and a a white building at the back with a statue in the middle of the courtyard, Thorn, Netherlands
The statue of Ansfried

How the Abbey of Thorn was born

Thorn, the way we know it today, developed around the abbey that was established there in the 10th century. The exact year when the church was built is not known. It should have been somewhere towards the end of the 10th century. There are many legends about it and even there were found falsified documents from the Middle Ages claiming that the church was built in 992. What is known is the fact that the bishop of Utrecht Ansfried built the church together with his wife for their daughter who became the first abbess of the convent. The name of the daughter also remains unknown. She was called Benedicta later.

From a religious to a secular establishment

Soon after its establishment the abbey started attracting rich women from the high nobility and from a pure nunnery it grew into a secular type of a convent. The abbey was ruled by an abbess assisted by a chapter of six to twelve ladies from the aristocracy who brought with them and could keep all their earthly possessions. Thus, the convent accrued large land properties scattered in today’s North Brabant, Limburg (provinces in the Netherlands), Belgium and Germany. Already in the 13th century the canonesses were farming out the land and enjoying huge profits.

a cobblestone street lined up with whitewashed houses with a church at the end of the street, Thorn, Middle-Limburg, The Netherlands
A lovely street in Thorn

Girl power

The convent turned into an elite place where one could be accepted only if both parents and all grandparents up to the great-great-grandparents on both sides were of noble birth, thus banning impoverished nobles and aristocrats out. In principle, the canonesses were allowed to stay during the day in their homes and at night they should sleep in the convent. Soon this rule was abandoned, and the ladies were staying in their huge houses, where they also kept servants. In 1310 they even wrote to the Pope requesting that they should change their attire to reflect their stand. They were simply trying to get rid of the nunnish appearance which included a black tunic with a white wimple. The bald request was however 180 years later blessed by the then Pope.

The smallest Imperial Abbey

In the course of the 14th century the abbey gained momentum on the local political scene and by the end of the 15th century it was granted imperial immediacy which turned it into an imperial abbey within the Holy Roman Empire. In the 16th century the abbess had already one seat in the district council of Westphalia and in the 17th century a seat in the Imperial Diet. Although Thorn was a super tiny imperial abbey, it had quite an important role within Europe. It remained also neutral in all the wars throughout the centuries. It was actually a kind of independent city-state in the Middle Ages.

a cobblestone street with whitewashed houses on both sides and geraniums on the windows, early in the morning
Thorn

Medieval tax haven

The ambitions of the abbesses and their entourage together with peaceful times brought prosperity to Thorn and its inhabitants. The lands were farmed out and the peasants were paying their lease rent but actually no taxes were levied in Thorn, something that was unthinkable not only in the middle ages. In the 16th century the abbey had its own mint, but it turned out that they were falsifying coins with lower silver content than the norm, so the mint was quickly closed.

The end of the glorious days

Thorn prospered until the French Revolution. In 1794-1795 during one of the so-called French Revolutionary Wars the Low Countries (today’s Netherlands and Belgium) were invaded and Thorn fell under the French rule in October 1794. Year and a half later, on 1 September 1796, all religious establishments were abolished, and this was the administrative end of the Abbey. The then abbess tried to overrule this by stating that Thorn wasn’t in fact a religious establishment as the ladies who entered it neither took vows or lived together, but all her efforts were in vain. Thorn couldn’t be saved. The palace of the abbess and all abbey buildings were demolished. Only the Abbey Church survived.

a cobblestone street lined up with white buildings with flag mast on some of them and flags blowing in the wind, on one side some tables and chairs on the sidewalk, part of a cafe, the little white town Thorn
Thorn

Why are all houses white in Thorn?

And here comes the answer to the biggest question: why all houses are white in Thorn? After the invasion of Thorn by the French at the end of the 18th century, Thorn became part of the Lower Meuse (Meuse-Inférieure) – a department in the First French Empire at the time of Napoleon, and remained part of France until 1815 when at the Congress of Vienna it was given to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. This is how Thorn ended up within the territory of today’s Netherlands.

So, after the French took possession over Thorn they started imposing various taxes. You remember that Thorn was a tax haven, so people didn’t like that. One of the taxes was based on the number of windows a house would have. And what did the resourceful inhabitants of Thorn do? They bricked up the windows to pay less taxes. And to cover it all up, they whitewashed the walls of their houses, so that you won’t see the scars. This is how the little white town was born.

a whitewashed outer wall of a house with a bricked-up window and the beautiful lamp post in front of it
A bricked-up window

The question still remains whether the inhabitants of Thorn wanted to evade the taxes or they were too poor to pay them, but whatever the reason was, they discovered a way not to do it.

Final words

If you want to explore the Netherlands beyond Amsterdam, the windmills and the tulips, you should start with Limburg. The little white town of Thorn will surprise you with its numerous stories, the lovely whitewashed houses and the great atmosphere. Thorn can be easily visited on day trip from Maastricht, Eindhoven or Roermond. Also, if you travel around in the Netherlands or Europe, you should include Thorn on your itinerary, as it’s conveniently located near the major highway A2.

Do you need some extra help to plan your trip to the Netherlands? Join the dedicated Exploring the Netherlands Facebook Group, where you can get tips from other travellers and locals. Or perhaps you have questions or comments? Join the group and I’ll be happy to answer them.

Daniela
About Daniela
Daniela has been living and travelling in the Netherlands since 2009. She has actually been to all the places she writes about. A linguist by education and a writer by profession, Daniela is on a mission to help you plan the perfect trip to her home country - the Netherlands.